|Laos is one
of the poorest nations in South-East Asia. A mountainous and landlocked
Nepal, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia
to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.
Cities of Laos.
Vientiane - the still sleepy capital on the banks of the Mekong River
Huay Xai - in the north, on the Mekong and the border with Thailand
Luang Prabang - a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous
temples, colonial era architecture, and vibrant night market.
Vang Vieng - Las Vegas of Laos. Enjoy repeated episodes of The Simpsons
Luang Namtha - capital of the north, known for its trekking.
Muang Xay - also known as Oudomxay, the capital of the multiethnic
province of Oudomxay.
Pakbeng - halfway point on the overnight slow boat between Huay Xai &
Pakse - gateway to the Wat Phu ruins and the "four thousand islands" (Si
Savannakhet - in the south, on the Mekong, connected by bridge to
Tha Khaek - south of Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong, Tha Khaek is
a popular base for exploring the Phou Hin Boun National Park including the
famous Konglor Cave
Ban Nalan trail - a 2 days ecotourism trekking in the north of Laos.
Champasak - Angkor-style Khmer temples, a World Heritage Site
Nong Khiaw - North of Luang Prabang by 4 hour bus ride or 7 hour slow
boat ride, this area is between beautiful Karst cliffs where you can
discover hilltribe villages, kayak, bike ride, or just hang out in a
Plain of Jars - just what the name says, but nobody knows what they are
or why they are there
Si Phan Don - the "four thousand islands" are nestled within the Mekong
near the Cambodian border
Vang Vieng - backpacker hangout for spelunking in limestone caves and
tubing on the Nam Song river
Vieng Xai - Remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism. See
the caves where the Pathet Lao Leaders ran their opperations in defiance
of the West.
Tham Nong Pafa Cave - a cave discovered in Khammouan Province in 2004;
as many as 200 Buddha statues of all sizes have been found inside.
Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as
bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is
barbaric... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten.
Although there are a few grand (but relatively unheard of) attractions,
those visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the
opportunity to knock back a few cold Beerlao while watching the sunsets on
the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true
meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an
entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane
Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal
state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and
was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments
agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by
the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos
as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a
three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its
colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a
bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North
Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning
monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), this alliance led the United
States to dump 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos, mostly in the
northeast stronghold of the Pathet Lao (for purposes of comparison, 2.2
million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe by all sides in World War II
and unexploded ordinance still kills at least 1 person and 4 cows a day up
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control
of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to
Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private
enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN
Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok,
life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of
years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s
the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998
"Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer,
monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now
rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed,
Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.
Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 ethnic groups.
About half of the population are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the
river plains. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are
subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland
Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and
are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum.
The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong peoples who live higher
up. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated
in the cities. (The three group system described above is disrespectful
and in no longer in official use. Laos now recognizes 49 official ethnic
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of
Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal.
Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci
(also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the
participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth
of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long
sarong available in many regional patterns, however many ethnic minorities
have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a
common sight. These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa
biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear
western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory
attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also
for Lao women just visiting).
Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from March to May, when
temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is
from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours
are frequent (especially July-August), and some years the Mekong floods.
The dry season from November to March, which has low rainfall and
temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night),
is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country). However,
towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically
everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers
burning fields and fires in the forests.
Get in to Lao or Laos?
The people call themselves Lao and the language is Lao, so where did that
"s" come from? The answer seems to be a mistranslation from French:
somebody read royaume des Laos ("kingdom of the Lao people") as royaume de
Laos ("kingdom of Laos"), and the name stuck. The politically correct form
of the name, however, is Lao PDR and, should you have any incoming mail,
using it will increase the odds of it passing the censors.
Most ASEAN nationalities as well as a few others like Russians can enter
Laos "visa free" ; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a
tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or
consulate, or a visa on arrival now available at all ports of entry with
the exception of overland crossings from Cambodia. Virtually all
nationalities are issued a 30 day entry permit stamp. When applying for a
tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one passport photo is
Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Australians
pay $30, Canadians US$42, Chileans US$30, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch
US$35, Swedes US$31.
Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee
varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 is common. Processing times also
vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small
amount to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the
travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much
as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a
visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1400B for most
nationalities, plus 200B more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and
quicker to get one at the border.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in
Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings with the
exception when entering overland from Cambodia. The cost varies between
US$30 and $42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost
considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). A
US$1 "out of office hours" surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht) entry
stamp fee, might also be charged.
Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are
available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane (US$2 per day) and
via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to
Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by
national carrier Lao Airlines and a few others, including Thai
Airways , Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines. Some
seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing
/ better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights
to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines).
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however Air Asia now
flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap
option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with
discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the
Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40
minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong
Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two
shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the
night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing
the border by train.
Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas
on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National
Visa on arrival for Laos is currently not available when entering from
Cambodia overland, however it is possible to get a Cambodian VOA when
travelling in the opposite direction. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung
Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat ride away. Note that the
border is lightly used and both Customs officers and transport providers
have a reputation of gouging foreigners.
The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to
foreigners and visa on arrival is possible (or you can get in advance at
the Lao consulate in Kunming). Daily bus service operates from Mengla to
Luang Namtha and Udomxai.
Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross
from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there's a chunk
of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not
issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel ,
run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen (Thailand) to
Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.
Foreigners cannot legally cross the Laos/Myanmar border.
There are seven border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos.
From north to south:
* Huay Xai/Chiang Khong: Fourth bridge under construction. Usual route
to/from Luang Prabang, easy bus connections to Chiang Rai and points
beyond on the Thai side.
* Nam Hueng/Tha Li: Easily reached via Loei on the Thai side, but 378 km
of dirt road away from Luang Prabang. No visa on arrival.
* Vientiane/Nong Khai: The first Friendship Bridge and the busiest of
crossing of them all. Direct trains from Bangkok now available.
* Paksan/Bueng Kan: No visa on arrival.
* Tha Khaek/Nakhon Phanom: Third bridge under construction.
* Savannakhet/Mukdahan: The Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.
* Vang Tao/Chong Mek: On the route from Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani
There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners.
* Donsavanh - Lao Bao - to/from Savannakhet
* Keo Nua Pass
* Lak Sao - to/from Khammouan Province
* Nam Can - to/from Plain of Jars
* Na Meo - to/from Sam Neua
* Tay Trang - to/from Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw
* Bo Y (nearest town on Vietnamese side being Ngoc Hoi and on Lao side
Get around Laos
Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the
destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the
near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
State carrier Lao Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, a
dodgy safety history, and a horrible on-time record (in part caused by
difficult weather conditions especially in the mountainous north) - but
improvements are being made, with French ATR-72s slowly replacing the
aging Soviet and Chinese fleet. The fairly comprehensive network is by far
the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many
parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang
route costs US$78 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40
minutes what would take you at least six to eight hours by speedboat or
bus, and is usually operated with ATR-72s. Flights to more remote
destinations, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff of
the Soviet An-24, and are frequently canceled without warning if the
weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.
The second Lao airline is Lao Air , which flies 14-passenger Cessnas from
Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly) several times
a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at
the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.
Minibuses are quicker and more expensive, however that doesn't mean they
are necessarily better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western
standards, and may be more prone to breakdowns, but they usually have more
leg room which can make a long journey much more comfortable. Both types
are usually air conditioned.
Even more expensive, but certainly the most convenient, is a rented car
with driver. A car with a driver will cost around $95 USD per day. Some
can even drive over the border to Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The cars can be arranged at tour agencies, tourist hotels and car rental
companies. The cars are new, so they're reliable. They have the bonus of
your being able to stop the car at any time for photos, nosing around a
village or just stretching your legs.
The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact
that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes
connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now
sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and
Some common routes through Laos include:
* Luang Prabang to Phonsavan - minibus: cramped, so arrive early to get
good seats as near the front as possible; beautiful views so secure a
window seat if possible.
* Phonsavan to Sam Neua - converted pickup truck: beautiful views but lots
of hills and bends, hence possible nausea
* Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi - converted Soviet truck: a 2 day trip along a
horrible road; good views and a necessary evil, but fun if you're prepared
to get a few knocks and talk to some Lao people who are, after all, in the
* Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha - converted pickup truck: takes two days due
to road conditions, with overnight accommodation possible at Muang Xay (Oudomxay);
all right road, much travelled by backpackers
* Luang Namtha to Huay Xai - road only passable in the dry season, but the
same journey can be made by boat in the rainy season. China builds a new
road to Thailand. The road from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai is part of this
road and it is a very good road.
* Paksan to Phonsavan - there is a new road between Borikham and Tha Thom.
In Tha Thom there is a guesthouse with 8 rooms. The forest between
Borikham and Tha Thom is still in a very good condition (but it's a dirt
road). Since most of the forest in Laos has gone this is one of the last
roads surrounded by primary forest. If you travel by motorbike this is a
must go! And tell it to everybody - if no tourists go there the forest
will be burned or sold.
A common form of local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos is the jumbo, a
motorized three-wheeler mostly referred to as a tuk-tuk like in Thailand,
although jumbos are somewhat larger. These are also known as taxis and,
more amusingly, skylabs - after a perceived resemblance to a space capsule
(clearly a warning sign of the dangers of excessive opium smoking). A
jumbo should cost no more than 10,000 kip (about US$1) for short journeys
of 1-5 km.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the
horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are
slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet
season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on
the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are
the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny
lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across
the water at high speeds.
By slow boat
Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai
Xai downstream the Mekong to the marvelous city (if you can call a 16000
capita place a city) of Luang Prabang. The ride takes basically two days
and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto
with no (good) food sold, so bring some, cramped and considerably hot.
It's your choice, but one of my fellow travellers remarked the second day
'no-one looks happy on this boat any more...' Be sure to bring a good
(long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and your best patience.
An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang
Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the
faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4,
with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect
to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees
against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine
inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops
for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you
make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang.
Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are
common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you
can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing
between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon
your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much
faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along
the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible
city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
January 1, 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that as of January 1, 2007,
the Lao Government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental
concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and
further information should be investigated. However, in early December
2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane
route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.
Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to
carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well
above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears,
especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing
considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful
river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious
maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported
(and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the
vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are
taller than the average Laotian (many are), are a bit claustrophobic
and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely
uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
* get one of the front seats as they allow you to stretch your legs and
are far from the noisy motor
* wear helmets and life jackets; reconsider your journey if these are not
* bring a coat in the cold season, the strong wind can make you feel cold
even at temperatures of 25C.
* bring earplugs
* protect water-sensitive equipment (you might get wet)
Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly
independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane
only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. Quality of
machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new
friend before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many
paved ones and touring Laos is done easily. Most bikes in Laos are Honda
Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually
mechanically questionable. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country
but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the
There is an operator in Laos that offers not only bike rentals but full
support and tour guidance for self drive trips, Remote Asia Travel based
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote
areas to discover, very little traveled roads, friendly people and even
some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional
guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spent in Laos
the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to
actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are
available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good
roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major
towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you
remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noddle soup is
one of the standards. There are two local operators running a wide
selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos:
* "Biking-Laos.com based in Luang Prabang"
* "Greendiscovery" operating from Vientiane and Luang Prabang
A thing to note if you travel on your own...there are very few proper bike
shops outside of Vientiane but also for bikes with 28 inches wheels you
would have a hard time. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you
get contact details to a supplier maybe from Thailand (Chiang Mai or
Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, note that some roads are still
not brilliant condition for a scooter due to the poor balance of those
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to
Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai
fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao.
French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is
understood by some older people, but these days English is far more
There are two main ways to turn the Lao script into the Latin alphabet:
either French-style spellings like Houeisay, or English-style spellings
like Huay Xai. While government documents seem to prefer the French style,
the English spellings are becoming more and more common and are
(naturally) easier for English speakers to read, so they're used on
Wikitravel as well. Two quick pronunciation tips: Vientiane is actually
pronounced "Wieng Chan", and the letter x is always read as a plain old
Trekking in mountainous northern Laos is quite popular. The main hub for
this is Luang Namtha. A new trekking spot is Oudomxay, just south of Luang
One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often
(but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often
just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side,
usually open only in the evenings. The procedure for a visit usually goes
1. Enter and pay first. The going rate is around 10,000 kip, plus around
the same if you want a massage afterward.
2. Head for the changing room, take off your clothes and wrap yourself up
in a sarong (usually provided).
3. Keeping yourself modestly sarong-clad, head over to the shower or water
bucket in one corner and wash up.
4. Plunge into the sauna room itself. It will be dark, hot and steamy
inside, with intense herbal scents of lemongrass and whatever the sauna
master is cooking up that day, and you will soon start to sweat profusely.
5. When you've had your fill, head outside, sip on a little weak tea and
marvel at how the tropical heat of the day now feels cool and refreshing.
6. Repeat at will.
The Lao currency is the kip, which is inconvertible (outside Laos),
unstable and generally inflationary. As of March 2009, there are around
8500 kip to the dollar and 13,500 kip to the euro. Make sure that you get
rid of all your Kip before you leave the country. There will be no
possibility to exchange it in other countries. The Vientiane airport for
example will exchange your Kip into Dollars.
The largest bill is only 50000 kip, the other notes in common circulation
are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip; withdrawing the maximum of
700,000 kip from an ATM (about US$70) could result in 70 notes of 10000
kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient.
Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US$ are generally accepted
(although typically at somewhat disadvantageous rates - about 5-10% less
than the official rate is common), and Thai baht are also readily accepted
in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. For short visits to the
main centers there's little point in exchanging kip, as changing them back
is a hassle in Laos and impossible elsewhere. Beware though, that in
remote places only kip is accepted and no ATM's will be available, so plan
More touristy places and banks are also starting to accept euro. So if
you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This
could be cheaper than changing your euros into US$ or baht and then into
There are now quite a few ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared
in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savanneket, Tha Khaek, and Pakse. (There is
also an ATM on test run in Luang Nam Tha). ATMs accept MasterCard, Maestro
and a few others. Virtually all BCEL machines now claim to work with VISA
(April 2008). However, transactions performed on the BCEL (possibly other
Laos ATM networks also) network charge a significant surcharge $1-$2 USD
for using their ATMs (even when your at-home back does not charge any
fees), above the rate received when exchanging cash currency. Relying on
them is at this stage risky due to their ludicrous unreliability — but if
it doesn't work the first time, keep trying every few hours (they tend to
get emptied in the course of the day, due to the huge numbers of notes
Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash
from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing
the money in US$ from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will
usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about
3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not)
charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from US$ to kip at a
poor rate to the US$, costing another 5% or so - hence, overall, these
transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for
withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. However, as for example
euros get pretty bad rates compared to US$ when exchanged in Laos, getting
a cash advance in US$ and changing it to kips might actually save money
compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane
routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where
the maximum per transaction is mostly 20000 baht, or ten times what you'll
get in Laos.
The use of both ATM's and credit cards in banks is subject to computer
functionality, staff's computer skills, power cuts, telephone network
breakdowns, National Day, etc. etc. A few travellers have been forced out
of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to further
their travels. Always bring cash as well. Changing money can be next to
imposible outside major towns.
Banks give good rates, but seem to abide in morbid fear that a tourist
might stumble upon them and change money. To avoid this unpleasant
eventuality, they ensure that the banking hours are very restricted and
that both Laos and European holidays are fully observed, with generous
buffer days between the official holiday and resuming work.
Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now
abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on
Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.
US$20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on
less than US$10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as
US$2 in Vang Vieng or as much as US$8 in Vientiane. Meals are usually
under US$5 for even the most elaborate lao, thai or vietnamese dishes
(western food is more expensive), and plain local dishes can cost less
than US$1. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$2.50; the
slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$20 for both days.
What to buy
Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order.
Expect to pay around US$5 for the fabric and US$2 for labour. Handmade Lao
silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The Talat Sao (Morning
Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk
scarves or wall hangings from US$5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy
of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as 'silk' imported
from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of 'antique' silk. There is very
little left but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still
attractive, but don't pay more than US$30-50. In markets, always bargain:
it is expected, but keep smiling...
Clockwise from top right: Tam maak hung papaya salad, sticky rice in a tip
khao basket and fresh lettuce leaves
Clockwise from top right: Tam maak hung papaya salad, sticky rice in a tip
khao basket and fresh lettuce leaves.
Lao cuisine is very
similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand:
being very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh
herbs and vegetables served raw. The staple here is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວ
khao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your
right hand, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.
The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed
with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering
amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip)
instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty
if spicy carpaccio.
Another favourite is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya
salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with
fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa
daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavor than the milder, sweeter Thai
style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and
mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.
In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are
common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho)
noodles from Vietnam are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at
breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese
pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called kuay tiow in
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, made with
Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports.It maintains an almost
mythical status amongst travellers and world beer afficionados. The yellow
logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large
640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 10,000 to 12,000 kip in
restaurants. It's available in three versions: original (5%), Dark (6.5%)
and Light (2.9%). The brewery claims they have 99% market share, yet you
can get Carlsberg (from the same brewery) and Heineken (imported from
Thailand) - but why should you?
Rice whiskey, known as lao-lao, is widely available and at less than
US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get hammered.
Lao coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be among the best in the world.
It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao
Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not adulterated with
ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé
instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default, kaafeh lao comes
with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with
milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.
Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely
There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a
beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant.
Also, be warned some clubs are seedy establishments!
Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots are
limited to basic hotels and guest houses, but there are many budget and
mid-price hotels and guest houses and quite a few fancy hotels in
Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment
with one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly
Crime levels are low in Laos, although petty theft (bag snatching) is not
unknown and seems to be on the rise. Whilst it is highly unlikely to
affect most travellers, Laos has some of the world's highest corruption
levels, and is a big factor in many citizens' lives.
Lao judicial processes remain arbitrary and, while you are unlikely to be
hassled, if accused your legal rights may be slim or non-existent. Three
points in particular to beware of:
* Sexual relations between a Lao national and a foreigner are illegal
unless they are married, and marriage requires special permits. "Number
One" condoms are available for 1000-5000 kip for a pack of 3. These are
probably the cheapest condoms in the world (and their quality seems to be
* Drug use in Laos will result in heavy fines and expulsion at best, and
imprisonment or even execution at worst.
* Any criticism of the Lao government or the Communist Party in any way,
shape or form is unwise.
Hundreds of people are maimed or killed by landmines or unexploded
ordinance left over from the Vietnam war every year in Laos. Almost all of
these occur in the eastern and northern parts of the country, especially
near the border with Vietnam. Never enter into areas marked as minefields
and travel only on paved roads and well-worn paths. If you are unsure of
what areas are and aren't safe to enter, ask the locals.
One other note of caution: there has been some violence between Hmong
rebel groups in the north and in central Laos and government forces. This
low-level insurgency has been brewing for years, and has been very
sporadic. The main areas affected have been on Highway 13 (which runs from
Luang Prabang to Cambodia, passing through Pakse and Vientiane). The last
reported case was in 2003 around Kasi. Attacks have been on regular buses,
not tourist buses. VIP and minibuses passing through these areas typically
used to travel with an armed guard (with a machine gun!). As of
October/November 2007 this wasn't the case anymore. Between 2003 and 2006
the primary forest in this area has disappeared - hiding would be
difficult for snipers now.
Laos is considered very malarial so anti-malarials are recommended, but
check with health professionals: there is a high incidence of
drug-resistant parasites in these parts. Other mosquito-born diseases,
such as dengue, can be life-threatening, so make sure you bring at least
25% DEET insect repellant and ensure that you sleep with mosquito
protection like nets or at least a fan. Vientiane seems to be malaria- but
The usual precautions regarding food and water are wise. Bottled water is
Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples
and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private
As with other Buddhist countries, showing the soles of your feet is very
poor manners. Never touch any person on the head. Despite prevelant cheap
alcohol, being drunk is considered disrespectful and a loss of face.
Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as
the natives will find humor in any tourist showing anger. They will remain
calm, and venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is
certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with
Respect for monks is part of Laotian life, and the monks take their duties
seriously. Remember that monks are forbidden to touch women. Some
undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can
understand and speak English. It is best not to compel them to stand next
to you for a photograph, or start a conversation, if they seem reluctant.
Internet cafés can be found in larger towns, however access speeds are
usually painfully slow. The most reliable connections are in Vientiane,
and usually cost around 100 kip/minute, with the cheapest offering 4000
kip/hour. GPRS via mobile phone is also an option, if you have a local or
Mobile phone connectivity in Laos has mushroomed, with no less than four
competing GSM operators. Two of these offer roaming sevices.
* Laotel has agreements with some 30 international networks - see
roaming with Laotel . Their M-Phone prepaid service seems to be
particularly popular among locals, at least in Vientiane.
* Tigo has agreements with over 100 International phone networks -
see roaming with Tigo . Another popular choice, they also have
low-cost international rate of 2000 kip/minute to many countries, if you
buy their SIM card and dial "177" instead of "+". However, as of February
2009, Tigo's coverage is still said to be poor away from larger towns.
* ETL Mobile is known to have better coverage in rural and remote
parts of Laos. However, in Laos "better" certainly does not mean
"everywhere". They seem to have low-cost international call service too.
Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased in various shops and stores
without any paperwork (at least for M-Phone and Tigo).
Also, there is Thai GSM coverage close to Thai border (including
significant part of Vientiane), and Thai SIM cards and top-up cards can be
bought in Laos; in addition, DeeDial International Call Cards are
available. Thus, if you already have Thai number, you can use (generally
cheaper) Thai network and/or avoid buying one more SIM. However, beware -
if your Thai SIM has International Roaming switched on, your phone will
use Lao network when your Thai network is not available, and the roaming
charges will be significantly higher.
Postal service in Laos is slow and not particularly reliable, although
outgoing mail is usually OK. As of January 2006, sending a postcard to
most of the world outside Asia costs 7000 kip.
For more information of Laos visit